Why go to Chiang Mai?
Chiang Mai is a breath of fresh air compared to the busy streets of Bangkok. Chaing Mai is a beautiful city in the mountainous region of Northern Thailand. It is an absolute Mecca for backpackers because of its laid-back vibe and plethora of activities to do.
What to do in Chiang Mai?
As with all places in Southeast Asia, Chiang Mai has A LOT of temples. ( I know what you’re thinking right now, “ANOTHER temple?”) Just hear me out on this one.
Wat Phra That Doi Suthep (aka “Doi Suthep Temple”) is one of northern Thailand’s most sacred temples. The temple is situated high in the mountains and offers to offer a spectacular view of Chiang Mai.
There are many ways to get to this temple, depending upon your level of adventure:
-Motorbike/Scooter: If you don’t mind driving 45 minutes uphill on a motorbike, this is the way to go. You can rent a scooter for as little as 200 baht a day, just make sure the motorbike has wheels with good traction!
Pros: You can stop off at various points on your way up to the temple to take pictures or even walk to a waterfall.
Cons: If you don’t feel confident about driving on a motorbike/scooter, then perhaps this really isn’t the best option for you.
-Bicycle: If you’re wanting to get a good workout, this option is great for you!
Pros: Good workout.
Cons: You have to be in good physical condition to bike uphill for a few hours. (AND you probably won’t have enough energy to visit the waterfalls on foot after that exhausting uphill battle).
–Songthaew (aka “red truck taxi”)
Pros: Fastest way to get there; good if you are traveling in a group of people.
Cons: You will probably need to negotiate a price with the “tuk tuk” driver.
(If you have time, Wat Rong Khun (aka “White Temple”) is only a couple hours away from Chiang Mai in the city of Chiang Rai and absolutely beautiful).
2. Bathe with the Elephants!
There are many tours you can go on while in Chiang Mai. One of the most unique ones is to bathe with the elephants. I’m all about eco-tours and I love animals. So, I carefully considered which tour to go on based on reviews and, of course, ethicality. There are a few reputable companies in Chiang Mai:
–Elephant Nature Park: Elephant Nature Park is a rescue and rehabilitation center for elephants. Here, you can bath and feed the elephants.
–Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary: Boon Lott’s Sanctuary doesn’t let you ride the elephants, but through their homestay program you’ll experience living among the rescued and rehabilitated animals. Reservations required. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
–Elephant Jungle Sanctuary: Elephant Jungle Sanctuary is an ethical and sustainable eco-tourism project that was founded in July 2014 as a joint initiative between members of the Karen hill-tribes and Chiang Mai locals who were concerned about the welfare of elephants in Thailand. It also offers a volunteer program as well. Click here for more info about volunteering.
3. Night Life
Chiang Mai has a number of dive bars with cheap beers and live music. “Zoe in Yellow” is where the scene is at. It is a well-frequented nightclub with loud music. However, if you want a more relaxed vibe, there are also a number of bars with Raggae music to wind down after a long day in Chiang Mai.
4. Sunday Night (“Walking Street”) Market:
Not to be confused for the Night Market (which is open EVERY night), the Sunday Night Market is a market that opens only on…SUNDAY night, of course! If you are in town, you HAVE to go to this night market. While it isn’t an official ‘walking street,’ the whole length of Ratchadamnoen and Pra Singh Roads are closed to traffic to become one VERY long (1km) street bazaar. Here, locals sell beautifully made handicrafts. There is also a little nook where you can eat cheap Thai food and drink local wine. The fun starts at 6 in the evening; the sooner the better as it can get quite busy!
5. Night Market:
Every city in Southeast Asia has its “Night Market” and Chiang Mai has a few! Most notably is the Sunday “Walking Market” where you can buy local handicrafts. Then, there are those where you can buy cheap souvenirs to bring home to Aunt Sue (hey, we all have that one family member who wants that cheap knick knacky stuff from all your adventures abroad). Night Markets are open every night of the week. Use your highly developed haggling skills to get the best price.
6. Learn to Cook like a Thai
There are a number of cooking schools in Chiang Mai. You can take a half day course or full-day. Most cooking schools offer similar itineraries: pickup from hotel/hostel, pick up ingredients at local market, and cook! (Bon appetite!)
7. Thai Massage
Five bucks for a ‘masaaaaaage?’ Count me in. The Thais are well-known for their ability to give an amazing massage and at $5/hour, why else wouldn’t you get one?!
8. Go on an adventure!
Chiang Mai is a nature-lover’s paradise. After a few days in the city, the lure of the jungle beyond is hard to resist! Most guesthouses offer similar itineraries — trekking, water rafting, etc. However, a few tour operators stand out from the rest: Tiger Trail Outdoor Adventures and Pooh Eco-Trekking both offer socially-responsible adventures.
9. Visit the Hill-Tribes:
Chiang Mai is located in Northern Thailand and still maintains much of its ‘traditional feel.’ Whilst there, you can visit the “Karen” Long-Neck Tribes (to see the ladies that elongate their necks with heavy brass rings). Many tour operators make a stop here; however, if you want an authentic experience (rather than the feel like you’ve just paid a visit to a “human-zoo”), consider staying overnight and getting to know more about the people in the tribe and their culture. If you are in Chiang Mai, the Baan Tong Luang Village is the easiest to visit. However, the experience will not be as ‘authentic’ as visiting the more rural tribes. You can also visit the Hmong (Meo), Big Earring (Akha) and the Karen Long Necks (Paduang) tribes. Women will allow you to take photos of them, and of course, persuade you to purchase some souvenirs in exchange for the photo-op.
10. Chat with a Monk
While exploring the city of Chiang Mai, have a chat with a monk! Visitors are able to speak to the monks whilst the monks practice their English. Win win! Two popular places to do these “Monk Chats” are Wat Chedi Luang and Wat Suan Dok.
Wanting to know how to travel through Southeast Asia on a budget? Read how to here.